Cheese-Making Tradition Melts Away in Camembert To be considered a true Camembert, the French cheese must be made in Normandy, from the milk of Norman cows. But in the village of Camembert itself, only one man makes the cheese in the traditional way.
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Cheese-Making Tradition Melts Away in Camembert

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Cheese-Making Tradition Melts Away in Camembert

Cheese-Making Tradition Melts Away in Camembert

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the musical sounds of Brooklyn, not just taxi horns.

But first, well, France is known for its hundreds of cheeses. The most famous is perhaps the soft round Camembert now enjoyed all over the world. But to be considered a real Camembert, the cheese must be made in Normandy in northwest France from the milk of Normand cows. In the village of Camembert, there's only one man left making cheese in the traditional way. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of bell)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

The tiny village of Camembert lies in the heart of Normandy nestled among patchwork fields dotted with grazing cows. Aside from the satellite dishes that now crown some of the thatched roof houses, not much seems to have changed here in the past 200 years except name recognition, of course. The name Camembert is now famous the world over. The last cheese maker in the village, Francois Durand, still makes his Camembert by hand.

Mr. FRANCOIS DURAND (Cheese Maker): (Through Translator) My name is Francois Durand. I'm 44 years old and I make farm-style Camembert cheese in Camembert. And I'm also the last maker of farm-style, Appalachian-controlled Camembert cheese in France.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

BEARDSLEY: Farm-style means that Durand uses the milk from his own cows to make about 120,000 Camembert a year. This morning, he is just beginning a fresh batch. After heating vats of freshly drawn milk to 90 degrees, he mixes in a small dose of the enzyme rennin which is extracted from the stomachs of calves. The enzyme called pizura(ph) in France curdles the vats of milk which Durand then cuts and ladles into dozens of Camembert molds lined up on straw mats. Most large industrial Camembert makers use a mechanized process and many pasteurize their milk. But in the tradition of the best cheese makers, Durand works with unpasteurized or raw milk.

Mr. DURAND: (Through Translator) There's a huge difference in taste between a pasteurized cheese and a raw milk cheese. By using raw milk, we keep all the natural fermentations. When you pasteurize or heat the milk to 167 degrees, you kill the fermentations in the milk and you have to use synthetic ones that aren't as good.

BEARDSLEY: Durand claims cheese made from raw milk has distinct advantages for the human body.

Mr. DURAND: (Through Translator) Someone who only eats pasteurized products, the day he comes across a pathogen like wisteria, will be a lot more vulnerable than someone who has eaten raw milk products all his life because the body gradually immunizes itself.

BEARDSLEY: After the curdled milk is ladled into the molds layer by layer, it is left for 24 hours. By then, the liquid has drained off and the cheese has become more dense. When the molds are removed, the round cheeses are salted but they're not Camembert yet. For the transformation to take place, the cheese must spend at least two more weeks in a cool dark room for the process of affinage. During this time, a layer of fuzzy white mold develops on the cheese giving it the distinctive Camembert odor and taste.

(Soundbite of bell)

BEARDSLEY: Just down the hill from the church in Camembert stands a memorial to Marie Harel. She's credited with inventing the cheese in 1789. The mayor's office in the small Camembert museum next door both closed, but 80-year-old Camembert native Pierre Blais(ph) is outside in his garden. He points to a wooden-beamed house on a hill where he says Marie Harel used to live.

Mr. PIERRE BLAIS (Camembert Native): (Through Translator) She hid a priest there in that house up on the hill because, you know, during the French Revolution, priests were meant to disappear. Well, he was hidden for quite a while up there at that house, and during that time, he gave her the secret to making Camembert.

BEARDSLEY: From time to time, this story has been contested but no one has yet found a better version.

(Soundbite of rustled paper)

BEARDSLEY: Back at the farm, newly made Camembert is being wrapped in waxed paper and put into little round wooden boxes. Durand says what he loves most about his craft is that he controls the process from beginning to end, but that's also what makes it challenging.

Mr. DURAND: (Through Translator) The evolution of the cheese depends on outside conditions that you can't always control. And when you're working with a living fragile product like raw milk, the challenge and difficulty is to always keep the same quality.

BEARDSLEY: Durand says his children are not interested in cheese making and he's not sure he'll be able to find someone to take over the business. If he fails, the village of Camembert may no longer have its own cheese maker.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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